The shooting of Malala Yousafzai has shocked an unshockable Pakistan

The 14 year old was shot at close range because "she was speaking against the Taliban".

It takes a lot to shock Pakistan, given the frequency of bomb attacks, targeted killings, and other violence. But the shooting of 14-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban yesterday has left the nation reeling. Popular talk show host Hamid Mir summed up the mood last night when he said: "I can see the whole nation's head bowed in shame today. I want to ask those who shot a girl, who only wanted to go to school: do you think you are Muslims?"

Yousufzai came to public attention for her blog detailing what life was like under the Taliban, who temporarily took control of her native Swat Valley in 2009. She has been on the militant group's "hit list" since the start of the year. Although her family have said they have received death threats, nothing could have prepared them for the brutality and abruptness of the attack.

She was sitting with classmates on a school bus in Mingora, a city in the Swat valley, preparing to drive home after morning classes. According to eyewitnesses, a bearded man entered the bus and demanded that Malala be identified. He shot her at close range in the head and the leg, also injuring two of her classmates. She was rushed to hospital before being taken in a military helicopter to an intensive care ward in Peshawar. The bullet to the head, which missed her brain, had lodged in her neck. It has now been removed but she remains in a critical condition.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that if she survives, another attempt will be made on her life. “She was pro-west, she was speaking against Taliban, and she was calling President Obama her ideal leader,” spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told Reuters. “She was young but she was promoting western culture in Pashtun areas.”

In 2009, the government effectively ceded control of the Swat Valley, a beauty spot beloved of Pakistani tourists, to the Taliban. Their takeover saw closures of girls' schools, men being forced to grow beards and the beheading of opponents. Aged just 11, Yousafzai wrote a blog for BBC Urdu under the pen-name of Gul Makai, expressing her anxiety about what was happening around her and her fears that her education would be stopped. After a military offensive in Swat later that clear, the Taliban was largely cleared out of the area. Yousafzai was awarded the country's first National Peace Award, and appeared on national television, carefully sticking to her concerns about education rather than broader criticism of the militants. "I don't mind if I have to sit on the floor at school. All I want is education. And I am afraid of no one,” she told one station.

The bravery is quite astonishing, when you consider the fact that major politicians and indeed, entire governments, have shied away from making such bold statements against the Taliban. The aim of the attempted assassination, of course, was to spread fear and discourage anyone else from speaking out against militancy. Sadly, this has previously proved all too effective in Pakistan. When two ministers calling for reform of the blasphemy law were murdered last year, the government’s response was not to stand tall in the face of violence, but to shelve the reform altogether. Attacks by extremists on the country’s Shia minorities - including some chillingly similar assaults on buses - have gone unpunished and practically unnoted. All of this adds up to a culture where extremists can act with impunity. 

It is a bold statement in itself that this attack was possible in an area so heavily fortified by the army. Following the military operation in 2009, top command claimed that they had cleared the region of Taliban militants and destroyed their network. Some have seen this attack, along with other recent incidents in the area, as a sign that the Taliban is making a comeback in the area. While that may be jumping the gun, it certainly shows that they are functional. Some fear that it could herald a new spate of killings.

Politicians across the board have condemned the attack, with government and opposition united in their prayers for Yousafzai. Newspapers and broadcast networks have also been unanimous in their condemnation. Nor is revulsion at the incident limited to educated, liberal circles, with Radio Pakistan’s Peshawar studio fielding hundreds of calls from outraged residents of the city. Protests have been held in Peshawar, Multan and Mingora (Malala’s hometown). Another is expected in Lahore.

Although some have suggested that this may have been a step too far, the moment that will turn the public decisively against the Taliban, such a view is optimistic. The Taliban, after all, are not in the business of winning over hearts and minds. Has the shooting compounded fear? Yes, certainly. Yousafzai’s father has already expressed anxiety about girls in the area being too afraid to attend school, and there can be no doubt that activists will be even more concerned for their safety than they are already. Will it succeed in silencing Yousafzai and other courageous, educated women speaking out against the tide of militancy? As one brave 14 year old fights for her life, we can only hope that it will not.

Activists carry photographs of Malala Yousafzai. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".